ORNL's Pooran Joshi with electronics components printed on flexible plastic substrates.

Small commercial buildings may soon enjoy the benefits afforded to high-end offices with sophisticated energy monitoring systems thanks to a breakthrough in low-cost wireless sensor technology by the US Department of Energy.

Advanced sensors and controls have the potential to reduce building energy consumption by 20-30 per cent.

“It is widely accepted that energy-consuming systems such as heating, ventilating, and air conditioning units in buildings are under, or poorly, controlled causing them to waste energy,” director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Building Technologies Program Patrick Hughes said.

“Buildings could increase their energy efficiency if control systems had access to additional information.”

Collecting data such as outside air and room temperature, humidity, light level, occupancy and pollutants, however, is currently cost prohibitive, whether the information is gathered by inexpensive conventional sensors that then must be wired, or with expensive US$150-300 per node wireless sensors.

ORNL researchers have now made a new wireless sensor prototype that could reduce costs to around $1-10 per node by using advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive roll-to-roll manufacturing. This process enables electronics components like circuits, sensors, antennae and photovoltaic cells and batteries to be printed on flexible plastic substrates. The nodes can then be installed without wires using a peel-and-stick adhesive backing.

Mr Hughes said if commercially available at the $1-10 price there would be “endless application possibilities” where the payback would only be a few years or less thanks to lower bills, and that both new and retrofitted buildings could benefit.

“This technology provides the information that enables ongoing continuous commissioning, fault detection and diagnosis, and service organisation notifications when needed, ensuring optimal building system operations throughout their service life,” said ORNL’s Teja Kuruganti, principal investigator on the low-cost wireless sensors project.

ORNL is currently in negotiations to establish a cooperative research and development agreement with an international electronics manufacturer to make the low-cost wireless sensors commercially available.